For a few moments Sunday night,Â NASCARÂ playoff contender Chase Elliott was at a loss for words. Literally. He silently stared off into the distance, lost in his own thoughts. He dropped his head and pawed the ground. He ran his right hand across his scrubby beard and shook his head. All without a word.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he found some.
âThereâs no excuse for a day like that,â he said after finishing 36th in the First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway. âWe know better and we can do better than that. That kind of thing shouldnât have happened. Itâs frustrating and disappointing.â
Elliott, already a three-time race winner this Cup Series season, had reason to be quietly upset. On Saturday early in the morningâs first practice session, the engine in his No. 9 Chevrolet Camaro spewed fire and smoke and died. Later in the afternoon, riding with a new Hendrick Motorsports engine, he practiced well and qualified second for Sundayâs 500-lap race.
Despite starting at the back of the grid Sunday, Elliott effortlessly came through the field toward the front. He quickly reached the topÂ 25, almost as quickly raced into the topÂ 20, then briefly found the topÂ 10. But his car abruptly slowed under caution at lap 179. He pitted and eventually went into the garage.
He lost more than 50 laps while the crew replaced a broken axle. He was scored a deadÂ last, 38th, for much of the afternoon, then ended the day 36th when Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola crashed out to finish behind him. After going into Sunday in solid contention for the Monster Energy Cup championship, he faces a daunting task if he wants to reach the Championship Round at Homestead in three weeks.
The numbers: He came to Martinsville with 4,024 points, sixth best among the eight championship hopefuls remaining from the original field of 16. He lost 44 points with the broken axle and is eighth in the standings, 44 points below the advance line. Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are fifth, sixth and seventh ahead of him, with First Data 500 winner Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano well ahead of the bottom four.
When it was suggested that under the right set of unlikely circumstances Elliott could still reach the Championship Round at Homestead, he dismissed the longshot scenario. âIn the playoffs, every race is a must-win race,â he said softly, almost inaudibly. âThatâs certainly the case for me now. I have to win one of them.â
The odds are not with him.
Heâs 0-for-7 lifetime at Fort Worth (with five top-10 finishes) and 0-for-7 at Phoenix (with four top-10 finishes). Clearly, anything other than a victory probably wonât be good enough.